2016 record: 5-11, last in AFC West
Point differential: -13
Turnover ratio: -7
Just writing out “Los Angeles” in front of the Chargers is enough to throw folks for a loop. The team has moved north and will play 2017 in a 27,000-seat soccer stadium in LA.
How the relocation impacts the team is one of many questions surrounding these Chargers. The team takes to the new field with a rookie head coach in Anthony Lynn. There is star power on both sides of the ball with Philip Rivers and Joey Bosa, and a revamped supporting cast for both should help the team improve from last season’s disappointing 5-11 finish. How the greenhorn young coach handles a team with a lot of peaks and valleys on the roster, not to mention a seemingly inordinate rash of durability questions, makes the Chargers one of the tougher teams to forecast.
Five questions for the Los Angeles Chargers
- What does Philip Rivers have left?
Not many quarterbacks have a better resume than Philip Rivers. He’s in the top 10 all-time in passing TDs, passer rating, yards per attempt and completion percentage. With another “average” Rivers season, he’ll vault into the top 10 in passing yards. And an average season for Rivers over the last 7 years is pretty extraordinary for most quarterbacks: 65 percent completions on 571 attempts, 4411 yards, 29 TDs. His quick release, outstanding touch on deep throws and swaggering, infectious confidence make Rivers a Pro Bowl regular.
Then there is the bad Rivers, which also cannot be denied. He’s thrown the most interceptions in the league in two of the last three seasons, including his 21 picks last year. His splits from last year are stark; look at the radical difference between his first and fourth quarters in this chart, courtesy Pro Football Reference:
Now 35, Rivers isn’t apt to get better at anything any longer. He’s fallen into bad habits and what limited ability he had with his legs appears gone. He’s still a very good quarterback but is more limited in what he can do than his aging veteran counterparts like Drew Brees, Tom Brady and Ben Roethlisberger.
The Chargers have no backup plan. Kellen Clemens is perhaps the most non-threatening No. 2 QB in the league. They’ve drafted just two QBs in the last 10 years, none since Brad Sorensen in the 7th round of 2013. Rivers plays every snap of every game and has started every game for the last 11 years. He’s the face of the franchise and one of the most respected leaders in the league. Rivers will cross the 50,000 passing yard threshold sometime in December. But he is what he is, and that’s never been quite good enough to push better rosters than this one over the proverbial hump. Barring a late-career hiccup, that won’t change. The good thing for Chargers fans is those late-career hiccups aren’t unprecedented, and Rivers has the talent to pull one off.
- Will the rookies be ready right away?
The Chargers are banking on several rookies to play significant roles right away, especially on offense. First-round pick Mike Williams was drafted out of Clemson to be the alpha receiver, the primary outside target for Rivers. He wore that crown pretty well in college for Deshaun Watson, and his size and improved ball skills will definitely help the Chargers. Williams doesn’t play with great speed or consistently gain separation, so he must keep working those ball skills and get in synch quickly with Rivers. However, as a balance on the opposite outside of a healthy Keenan Allen, Williams should be a strong contributor right away.
Both starting guards will be rookies, and barring an unexpected flop from Forrest Lamp and Dan Feeney the Chargers significantly upgraded the position. Lamp was one of the best left tackles in college football at Western Kentucky and again during the Senior Bowl, but his best NFL position is guard. He lacks length to play outside, but his technically adept game and outstanding coordination of strength and movement have Pro Bowl written all over them. He came in the second round while Feeney in the third. The Indiana grad battled injuries but was the best guard prospect in the draft in my eyes. If he proves he can anchor against bigger NFL bull rushes he’ll be an above-average starter for a decade. Sixth-round tackle Sam Tevi probably won’t play as a rookie but has solid long-term potential at right tackle too.
On defense, fifth-round pick Desmond King projects as the nickel back. King is plucky and a physical presence, but he lacks speed and showed some of the poorest agility for a corner that I’ve seen in years. It will be interesting to see where he aligns because quicker receivers will eat him up inside, but he lacks the length and long speed to handle the top outside receivers. He could have a bigger impact as a return man, where he thrived at Iowa. Fourth-rounder Rayshawn Jenkins will be the third safety and should play a big role on special teams. Plan on at least one undrafted free agent making the roster too, someone like CB Brad Watson or OLB Charmeachealle Moore.
- Can everyone stay healthy?
Not many teams have had the endemic injury issues which have struck this franchise. Too many key players have struggled to stay on the field. Wideout Keenan Allen is one of the most physically gifted wideouts in the league, and his skills are Pro Bowl-level. The problem is Allen has missed 25 games in the last three seasons, including all but the first half of the first game last year.
Jason Verrett is the team’s best defensive back and perhaps the best cover corner in the league under 6 feet tall. But like Allen, he cannot stay on the field. Verrett has played in just 24 of 48 games in his three-year career. The one year he played more than 6 games he made the Pro Bowl. Melvin Ingram hasn’t missed a game in the last two years but missed more than half the games in the two prior seasons. Those are three first-round picks dating back to 2012 who almost never see the field together.
Venerable tight end Antonio Gates has been hindered with a toe injury as well as advancing age. He’s still good but no longer an All-Pro at 36 years old, and he’s missed a third of the last two seasons. Offensive tackle King Dunlap retired after being released thanks to injury issues. Cornerback Brandon Flowers might do the same as he remains unsigned after missing more than half of the last two years. The man they’re plugging into Dunlap’s role is Russell Okung, a former standout who keeps bouncing around thanks to major injury issues which have dramatically impacted his level of play. Danny Woodhead (now gone), Jerry Attaochu, Brandon Oliver, Manti Teo (also now gone), Chris Watt, Steve Johnson, Craig Mager; the list of Chargers players who spend too much time injured is too long for the bandwith of this column.
Now there are issues surrounding this year’s first-round pick, Mike Williams. He is poised to begin his rookie campaign on the PUP with a back issue. Keep in mind Williams missed the 2015 college season at Clemson after breaking his neck. The depth at wide receiver is unimpressive if Williams and/or Allen can’t go. Tyrell Williams and Dontrell Inman put up numbers more on opportunity than any great talent, though I do think Tyrell Williams is a worthy fantasy football sleeper. At least tight end Hunter Henry, the clear class of last year’s rookie crop, is a great weapon. Rivers throws the ball to his running backs as well as any QB, too. In Ken Whisenhunt’s offense, that’s a big staple.
Chargers fans should expect this as he’s on his third stint with the franchise. Whisenhunt favors running more, and so does new coach Anthony Lynn--a former NFL running back. Melvin Gordon looked more spry and confident in his second season and could be in line for an increased workload. Gordon showed off better ball skills and elusiveness in space, too. His presence with the tight ends can help mitigate the lack of WR punch, but if the wideouts are healthy this is one of the best collection of skill position talent in the league. Yet so much depends on health.
- Can they stop the late-game issues?
No AFC team allowed more points in the fourth quarter of games than these Chargers. It was part of an odd but very real in-game decline on the defense, which ranked worse in each quarter as the games progressed.
Some of this is from the offensive issues, notably Rivers’ 5/9 TD-to-INT ratio in the final quarter and 10-point drop-off in completion percentage after halftime. But the defense bears much of the responsibility. It’s weird because there is legit talent across all three levels of the defense. When the Chargers needed someone to make a play on defense, the usual suspects just couldn’t make it happen late in games.
I expect that to change. The biggest reason is Joey Bosa, the reigning Defensive Rookie of the Year. He’s already one of the most effective pass rushers in the league with his diverse skill package and outstanding coordination of speed and strength. He finished with 6 sacks in his final 5 games as he learned how opponents were going to block him. That’s amazing, as it usually works the other way around for rookie pass rushers. Bosa could very well lead the league in sacks. Anything less than 13.5 will be disappointing. On the other side, Melvin Ingram can be a beast when his body is right. The last two seasons he’s bagged 19.5 sacks and looked very much like the first-round presence the Chargers wanted back in 2012. His ability to get his shoulder around the edge and flatten his tack to the QB is among the NFL’s prettiest pass rush moves. Having the bookend rushers means teams cannot shade help on one side for fear of the other talented edge blowing plays up. Brandon Mebane and Corey Liuget are a decent DT pair, though I do prefer Liuget playing more inside than the Chargers typically deployed him. If Jerry Attaochu can ever get healthy (notice the recurring theme?) and Kyle Emmanuel can build off his rookie year there is nice depth at pass rusher flanking a decent interior.
The corners are in good shape with Verrett (if healthy) and Casey Hayward, who led the league in INTs with 7 and remains one of the best bait-and-get corners in the league. Quarterbacks think Hayward is beat, but he uses his length and closing burst to shut those windows and make plays. He’s also one of the more proficient tacklers at his position, though the quantity is better than the quality there. He was an underrated impact free agent and one the Packers never should have let get away. I still have hope for Craig Mager as the third corner too, though my pre-draft infatuation has faded after a couple of lackluster (at best) seasons. The safeties aren’t great with Dwight Lowery and Jaleel Addae, but Lowery in coverage and Addae in run support are both solid. Just don’t ask too much
Jatavis Brown was a godsend as a rookie at linebacker. In just 12 games, starting only 7, the diminutive dynamo from Akron led the team in tackles. He also proved quite adept in coverage and an excellent clean-up second-wave defender and blitzer. If he played in a bigger market he might have made the Pro Bowl. Now that he does, Brown might be a regular fixture. Fellow LB Denzel Perryman proved capable and a good schematic fit next to him, too. Both are under 24 and could grow into a formidable force together. They need to be, as the depth at ILB and all over the secondary is one of the thinnest in the league.
It all indicates the fourth quarter collapses should be an odd hiccup. The key will be to maintain solid play in the first three quarters. The talent is certainly in place for this to be one of the better defenses in the league.
- How does the team respond to the move?
There was one bottom line I had when I sat down to outline these Chargers. They are a team making an unpopular and forced relocation with a rookie head coach. They will play their games in a soccer stadium in front of a fan base that was apathetic towards its other NFL teams, including the Rams last year in their relocation.
That’s a very difficult situation to succeed in for any coach, let alone a greenhorn. Lynn only has two years of coordinator experience at 48 years old. It helps having former head coaches Whisenhunt and Gus Bradley as his top assistants, but both of those men wildly disappointed in their shots as head coach. Perhaps they can provide insight on what not to do.
Leaving the difficult situation in San Diego behind should ultimately be a positive, but in the short term? Color me incredibly skeptical.
The Chargers are a cloudy forecast. Cloudy because if the main components all stay healthy and fit together well, there is ample talent here for a playoff win or two. Cloudy because they have a rookie coach lording over an unpopular relocation to a stadium smaller than a lot of FCS schools. Cloudy because injuries have ravaged the depth and are already biting even before training camp begins. Cloudy because the quarterback is a dark horse MVP candidate but also just as likely to lead the league in turnovers. Cloudy because their pre-bye week schedule is incredibly formidable, but also manageable if Philip Rivers, Melvin Gordon, Joey Bosa and Jatavis Brown are all at peak performance.
It says here this is the best last place team in the league, yet I have a hard time forecasting a last-place finish. There is so much talent in the right positions, outside of left tackle. I can see Rivers uniting the young supporting cast into rallying around the “us against the world” mentality and steering the Chargers to a Wild Card berth, with Bosa as a legit Defensive Player of the Year candidate. I can also see the injuries mounting (again), coach Lynn struggling to swim with a headstrong QB and a pair of assistant coaches angling for another shot at head coaching gigs, and the fan apathy weighing heavily enough to have this team picking in the top 3. My prediction leans more towards the latter, unfortunately. These Chargers finish 6-10 in their inaugural reincarnation as the Los Angeles Chargers.